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Endemol’s Sivan Pillay on local production skills, mobile TV and that Big Brother download controversy in Nigeria

Africa has few local TV production companies of any scale, let alone ones with pan-continental aspirations. South Africa-based Endemol is part of a larger international company and has carved itself out a significant position making African version of international show formats. However, less well known is its drama output and its involvement in the Internet and mobile TV. Russell Southwood interviewed its Head of Commercial Business, Sivan Pillay.

Q: When did the company start?

In South Africa, it was founded in 1996. The South African partner was KMM Review Publishing. It was an investment stake for Endemol International.

In each territory it enters, Endemol International looks at who the key players are in the market and seeks to buy into one or more and create a market leader in the market. Endemol’s business around the world is the exploitation of IP.

Q: So what type of shows?

Those that require complex mathematical calculations don’t work too well. We try to create new formats. We’ve created a couple this year and these are sold into Africa and internationally. South Africa’s production market is not as complex as European markets and rights for programme formats from outside Endemol are also easily available.

We handle business for Sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria and East Africa. In Nigeria, we produced a drama called Doctor’s Orders . We also did PlayTV and Big Brother there. We’re also looking at doing Deal or No Deal there. In East Africa, we’re doing Project Fame with the funding coming from sponsors.

Q: Why have you focused on Nigeria and Kenya?

These are two African countries that are on the rise economically. People in Nigeria have a higher literacy level than in South Africa. Education is the key to creating ambition. Nigeria is full of people wanting to be TV producers. In both countries, there’s a sense of ambition from people. The broadcasters want to be on the same level as international broadcasters.

Q: Is there any other production company like you on the continent?

There’s nobody on the same scale as us. There’s a couple of guys spreading their wings but they’re mainly involved in football.

Q: How do different styles of storytelling affect your drama output?

South African storytelling is a very simple form: what you see is what you get. Isidingo is our flagship programme and it’s run for over 10 years on that basis. When SABC commissioned it, they wanted a programme that would symbolize “one nation viewing”, eptitomising the new nation. Its creatir Gray Hofmeyr said he wanted it to be like The Village (one of his earlier series) twenty years on. Isidingo questions and pushes topics of social debate.

It’s also very popular in Africa: 12 countries take it. The programme’s based around a mining community and there are a lot of mining communities in Africa. If it has relevance to an audience, it will sell. Most commissions for drama from SABC are far too subjective and ethnocentric to travel.

Q: Are you just in the television?

No, we’ve moved from television into mobiles and the Internet. We’re generating large amounts of SMSs on shows like Big Brother. Originally we had to go through third party aggregators to deal with this but then we decided to launch Mobivision and we became a WASP (Wireless Application Service Provider). Right now we have a unique deal in place and we gave some of this to our technical company World Play Ltd. We run a range of response-oriented services including competitions for Caxton Magazines.

Q: What kind of content do you think works on mobiles?

I don’t believe reversioned content is what people will want from mobile TV. They want unique content, something that’s been tailor-made for the medium. We’re about to do a series called Get Close To and things like this will usually be sponsored by a handset manufacturer or a network operator. We do mobisodes of series like The Fear Factor. Mobile TV has got to be shot and packaged differently. The titbits have got to be sexier.

Q: You had a staggering number of downloads from Big Brother?

There were 5 million downloads of material from Big Brother 2 and it was free. 90% of those downloads came from within Africa and of those 33% were from South Africa and 37% from Nigeria and Uganda.

Q: How will the entry of new Pay TV players, particularly in South Africa, affect this?

There will be two key players: Multichoice and Telkom Media. The latter has money and will be up and running by September 2007. Its business terms are very favourable and in line with those offered by Multichoice. The impact of all this will be there for viewers to see in 2-3 years time.

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